Wednesday, August 16, 2006

South Africa Lessons

With the International Conference on AIDS taking place now in Toronto, I find myself reflecting on my experiences in South Africa. I made many trips to this wonderful country and hosted South African colleagues and friends here in Canada. The people had a great impact on me. I learned that they are a people of tremendous strength and optimism. Despite apartheid, aids, poverty, etc., people on the streets in the centres all over the country greet the world with smiles and a zest for life that is enviable. As I see their faces and hear their voices on TV, I am reminded of the lessons I learned in Africa. Interestingly, it was through the eyes of South Africans that I began to understand and appreciate who we are as Canadians.

On every encounter with the South Africans either here or in their country, our team was thanked for “our Canadian way.” The South Africans were deeply appreciative of the aid that we provided. They not only valued what we gave, but more importantly, how we gave it. The “how” was more important than the “what.” Canadian aid was different in that important way. I think this “how” is an important clue in defining ourselves as a nation.

Our Canadian way is often a quiet, gentle way. We do not have the loudest voice or the voice with the most power. Our Canadian way is sharing of information and providing help to determine how our methods and ways can be implemented in another culture. Our Canadian way is the acknowledgement that we, as Canadians, do not know the answers for the South Africans. We can share what we have done, and we can provide ideas and assistance, but ultimately, the decision must be theirs and theirs alone. Our Canadian way is the recognition that there are many ways in the world, and our way is just one. It is neither the best nor the only way. Our Canadian way is the acknowledgement that the learning involved in international projects is a two way street and that we learn just as much as the people that we assist.

I learned that Canada has an exceptional reputation in the world. Because our egos and our armies are not big, we are seen as tolerant people, able to see all sides to a conflict. Our open-mindedness comes from the fact that our people come from all over the world and that they hold on to their cultural and religious beliefs. We not only tolerate this diversity; we encourage it.

It was great to be part of these missions. I was so proud to be an ambassador for Canada, to be associated with all that it stood for. I would bring Canadian flag pins with me on my trips. No matter how many I would bring, I would run out. They were coveted by the South Africans because the Canadian flag meant something very special to them. They associated it with aid, with tolerance, and with a nation that is often called in to broker peace.

It has been a while since I have been to South Africa. I am not sure how our reputation is doing there. I am worried about our reputation in South Africa and in the rest of the world. During the last few months, the Canadian way has changed. We knew it was coming. Stephen Harper promised that things would be different. “We can create a country built on solid conservative values, not on expensive Liberal promises, a country the Liberals wouldn’t even recognize, the kind of country I want to lead.” (Stephen Harper, Leadership Convention Speech, March 19, 2004)

The changes have begun. If you have any doubt, just look at the front page news or turn on the television. We’re spending billions of dollars on military might that has no hope of winning a war. Bodies of our soldiers who have fought in wars are coming home daily. We have waded in with our American neighbours, picking sides and forming alliances against nations. Our traditional Canadian ways are morphing into something else, something that I am not sure that I could be really proud of.

It is not surprising that Stephen Harper was not at the Aids Conference. Our former Prime Minister’s commitment to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues is seen as “expensive Liberal promises.” Thank goodness there are other Canadian leaders at the Conference.

Mr. Harper has chosen this time to deal with northern sovereignty. Meanwhile, the world is noting his absence. Stephen Harper’s actions are changing the image of who we are and our reputation in the world. I do not want to follow.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

No Help at the Pump from Harper

What happened to the Conservative 3-point plan for gas tax relief? In the 2004 election, Stephen Harper vowed to eliminate the 7 per cent GST on any portion of gas prices above 85 cents per litre. He also promised to halt Ottawa’s practice of applying the GST to the full price of gasoline, including federal and provincial excise taxes – the tax on tax.

It seems that things have changed now that the conservatives are in power.

Gas tax relief is not one of Harper’s five priorities. And the problem is one of balancing the books. His 1 percent cut in the GST across the board will cost an estimated $360 million a year in lost gasoline revenues. If Mr. Harper stopped heaping the GST on the full cost of gas, ending the “tax on tax,” the Canadian Taxpayers Federation calculates that it would cost the government an extra $540-million. That would take a big bite out of the budget.

It’s funny how things have changed, now that the conservatives are in power. A September 2005 (conservative) news release states, “The Conservative party is the only political party that favours lowering gas prices. Stephen Harper is the only leader who wants to lower high gas prices and the Conservative party is the only party standing up for Canadians and advocating lower, not higher, gas prices.”

This is yet another example of Stephen Harper making promises while in opposition with no realistic plans to honour them. Rather than indicating how he is going to help Canadians deal with higher gas prices in the long term, Harper’s response to date has been “get used to it.”

Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Real Story About Tax Cuts

Tax cuts being announced this week are being touted as proof that the Conservative government is committed to help “hard working” Niagara West-Glanbrook residents. But, it is clear that Dean Allison is ‘standing up’ for some families more than others.

I am all for reducing the tax burden. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s put the Conservative government’s claims for their cuts into perspective.

The GST cut benefits those who earn and spend the most: it will save you 20 cents on a Timex, and $100 on a Rolex. For all the hype that came with it during the election campaign and ever since, two pennies on a cup of coffee will not be liberating anyone into an early retirement. Every serious economist in the country agrees that it is poor public policy and a misuse of about $4.5 billion in federal fiscal flexibility every year. To improve disposable income for “hard working” Canadians and help build greater productivity, the first target for tax reduction should be income taxes, not the GST consumption tax.

Here, again, let’s separate the spin of the Conservative government and not be fooled by clever politics over policy. It was the Liberal government that lowered the lowest income tax bracket to 15 from 16 per cent and raised by $500 the amount every Canadian can earn tax free in 2005. Those who filled out their tax forms this year noticed both of these Liberal changes immediately. The Conservative budget actually raises the lowest income tax rate up to 15.5 per cent and lowers the basic personal exemption amount by $400, beginning July 1st.

Let’s be clear: taxes for the lowest income Canadians are going up, not down. The basic personal exemption will decrease $200 in 2006, translating into approximated 150,000 people being put back on the tax rolls this year. This means a tax hike of about $31 per taxpayer for 2006, increasing to $62 in 2007.

Almost half of Canadian families earn less than $40,000, yet they will receive only 20 per cent of the benefit of the Conservative tax cuts, an average of just over $163. On the other hand, the 5 per cent of families earning over $150,000 a year will receiver nearly 30 per cent of the benefits – adding up to an average of over $2,010 in savings each year.

The $1,000 Canada Employment Tax Credit does not represent $1,000 in the pockets of taxpayers. Tax credits are multiplied by the lowest bracket rate, which means this measure will net $155 per year to all taxpayers. This credit is almost completely canceled out by the income tax hike. Again, this tax measure sounds good until you look at the real savings.

The Universal Child Care Benefit provides the clearest example of how this government’s plan is not “family friendly” at all. $100 a month hardly provides a universal solution. Just what is “universal” about it? How do parents with children over the age of six (who still need care when parents are working) benefit? And, what about the families that need help the most? A new national study reported in the Toronto Star yesterday, reports that Canada’s neediest children in Canadian families have the toughest time getting regulated daycare. Throwing $100 to families for each child under the age of six to spend as they please clearly does nothing to address the most needy of our country, and again, represents a short-sighted and politically-motivated approach. The study goes on to reports that inadequate and uneven levels of child-care service will continue if the federal-provincial child care funding agreements are cancelled, as planned. It is difficult to see how $100 a month can even be proposed as a means to support child care choices, when $100 will not cover child care expenses for a week for one child, let alone for a year.

In summary, this government’s legislative initiatives do not put money back into the pockets of all Niagara West-Glanbrook residents, “hard working” Canadians. In fact, it is hard to imagine a set of tax measures more slanted to wealthy taxpayers. There is wide consensus that the Conservatives’ tax plan will largely benefit higher income families over those who need the most help – low- and middle-income Canadians.